Friday, June 12, 2009

Book 46: Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger

I once stayed a house away from Salinger's reclusive New Hampshire home. To get there I drove a big white van filled with goofy costumes, collapsible sets, and a makeshift PA system.

At the time I was living in Providence, RI, and I was coming off a roller-coaster ride of a year. I got back from France in June. My college theater director Judith Swift (god love her) offered me a part in a professional production of 'South Pacific' at Theater-By-The-Sea. Performing at that theater was a dream come true of sorts as I have vivid memories of drinking Shirley Temples and watching wide-eyed as 'The King And I' or 'Oklahoma' unfolded.

During 'South Pacific' I started dating the girl who played the island goddess. This turned out to be a disaster of almost Biblical proportions and the whole summer was like a Rock-em Sock-em game in lingerie.

Near the end of the summer I was offered the part of the Anvil Salesman in a touring production of 'The Music Man' which I turned down to replace my friend Mitchell as a member of The Looking Glass Theater up in Providence. Looking Glass was also a vivid childhood memory as they toured the elementary schools of the state putting up quick rough and tumble productions.

I was going to be making a living as an actor.

I got an apartment right near Roger Williams Hospital which would come in handy 9 months later when my appendix burst in the middle of the night. A three bedroom apartment for (gulp) $450 a month. I had two room mates. We all paid $150 a month.

Long story long, my schedule was grueling but fun. Two shows a day, usually at the same school, sometimes across the state. We would roll up in the morning, teach the kids their parts, do the show for the school and then skedaddle.

Now we get to J.D. Salinger.

Occasionally we would book a show that was far enough away so that we had to spend the night. A show in New Hampshire came up. We were being hosted by the Principal of the school. She and her husband lived in a very nice very large house way out in the woods outside of a small New Hampshire hamlet.

Being actors and outsiders and freaks, we spent the whole drive up dreading having to stay with some stinky principal. We would have to eat dinner with them, eat breakfast, make small talk all night long, UGH.

We got there and found that all of our worst fears were confirmed. And worse. The Principal wasn't so bad but her husband was a psychiatrist who was also a painter. The house was immaculate, New Hampshire rustic on the outside, modern chic on the inside. And almost every inch of the wall space was covered with paintings by the master of the house.

They made us a perfect dinner and charmed us to the point that we wanted to throw up. She was beautiful, he was handsome, he was an artist, she an educator, hip! You'd think you were in some well-appointed New York flat, not an ultra removed exo-suburban farmhouse.

As we sat and drank wine, conversation naturally turned to all the art on the wall. The paintings were quite good and we said so. We didn't know they were HIS paintings. He then put his hands behind his head as he sat on the couch and began to talk about his art.

His hands stayed behind his head for the better part of 2 hours. It was one of the more awkward things I've ever seen. He was feigning nonchalance in one of the most grueling physical ways possible. Try it. Put your hands on the back of your neck and leave them there for a few minutes. They get sore right quick.

He had some image of himself as the relaxed unknown painter that he needed to relay to us. The three of us at some point became linked via ESP and couldn't get over the hands-behind-the-head thing. It was one of the more obnoxious displays of ego I have ever seen. You'd have thought we were interrogating Picasso.

Then, right before bed, hours after he'd bored us to tears, he casually mentioned that their nearest neighbor was J.D. Salinger himself.

And I thought, "The nerve!" We could have been talking about J.D. Salinger for hours and instead we talked about the 47 paintings you did which hang over the couch you sit on.

And therein lies the lesson. J.D. Salinger won't talk to ANYONE about what he does. He just did it and then left it at that. Total integrity.

This jackass farts and frames his underwear.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Book 47: Into The Dream by William Sleator

I hesitate to even type the title of this book onto the Internet because I harbor dreams of adapting it into a screenplay and I don't want to give anyone any crazy ideas. Oops, too late.

Somehow this novel-for-teens/tweens came into the O'Malley world way back when and my sister Sheila and I flipped our collective lids over it. Then college happened, life happened, shit happened, and I forgot all about it. Until one day in New York City I came across it in some bookstore (The Strand, perhaps, which my father insisted on visiting every time he came down from Rhode Island) and I snapped it up.

It took me probably the subway ride home to re-read it and pass it on to Sheila.

Fun little side note...another long lost book that I'll probably highlight later on in the list came back into my world at around the same time. Sheila was living with me and my now-ex-wife-then-fiance on the Upper West Side. Somehow she knocked this book out the window and down onto a ledge outside of the apartment below us. We then had to go slide a note under their door and, um, sorry about this, you're not gonna believe it, but 'The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)' is on your ledge and could you, um, bring it upstairs? Thanks!

'Into The Dream' is a thriller and a love story. The love blossoms between two sixth graders who begin the book as cootie-fearing rivals as the smartest in class and slowly discover that they are each having identical dreams. I refuse to give any details away so that when I pitch the blockbuster to Tom Cruise or Steven Spielberg there will be some surprises left.

There is an element in the story of governmental intrusion, of the sinister element of a faceless power attempting to co-opt the life of a citizen and utilize it for nefarious goals. For me, an 11 year old who had not yet learned about cynicism or world-weary pessimism, this was akin to what it must have felt like for many people to discover that the President of the United States had covered up a break-in. I was devastated.

At the same time the book managed to inject a kind of hope into this dark vision, to remind me that in spite of that kind of adult danger, there were still girls to like, dreams to share, kindnesses to perpetrate.

If you have a young reader in your family, track this book down on Amazon and send it along. It might seem a bit quaint in this day and age but quaint can still pack quite a punch when it is done well.

Well done, Mr. Sleator. And let's do lunch.

P.S. Sheila tells me that it was actually 'Into The Dream' which fell to the ledge below.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Book 48: V by Thomas Pynchon

I have no idea what this book is about. I was riveted. I have read it twice and still my incomprehension rages along in the current like a glass of tap water dumped into a stretch of rapids.

From 1955 America to Pre World War I Europe, the book seems to take everything that happened in the world from the late 1800's right up to the Civil Rights Movement and slap it on a canvas that at once illuminates and explains but also obscures and destroys history. An exhausting read.

My Dad recommended this book to me. According to him most of Pynchon is over-rated, difficult for the sake of difficult. But he loved this and 'Gravity's Rainbow' which I have yet to tackle. I first dove into 'V' when I was just out of college. At the time I understood less of it than I did when I read it recently.

You know that feeling you have when some small incident in your personal life seems to correspond somehow with a tragedy in the news? A plane crash. A village massacre in Africa. A factory fire in Brazil. For the rest of your life these events are inextricably linked and if someone were to do a cross-section of your emotional life as if you were a time capsule they would believe that you were more connected to that distant nightmare than you actually were.

This is what 'V' is like for me. It triggers all sorts of synaptic responses and they are connected to my actual life. But they are fractured even in the book, loosely strung from disparate locations and occurrences. By the time you have delved far enough into the narrative it is like being trapped in a spider web of your own making. The strands of the web come from outside of you, inside of you, from the book itself, from the real moments in history that the book hints at, from the interior connections that the characters make...until you realize that you are unable to move. That some grand time-spider is inching its way to the center of this self-spun catacomb.

Oh she broke my heart and couldn't I have done things differently? I lost my teddy bear for almost a year and a half and found it in a bush in a gully behind my house. It had weathered a brutal winter of storms. It squeaked when you pushed its belly and in spite of a cold exile that squeak still happens today when I reach into my closet of mementos and push that soft tummy. I ran up and down a street in a suburb of Chicago out of my mind with jealousy and rage until I climbed up a tree in her front yard. I never visited that town again.

Once I was to get on a bus to go see a famous Red Sox player attempt to hit the 400th home run of his career. Yaz. A bus had been arranged to take a crowd of state employees and their children up I-95 to catch this historic event. But the bus broke down somewhere before it got to us and we couldn't go to the game. I walked home crying holding my father's hand and now I am thankful for that mechanical malfunction that gave me a walk with my father.

In a backyard down the street from my house I rounded third base and hustled for home. A throw was coming from the outfield so I slid to escape the tag. My entire left arm swiped right through a huge pile of dogshit and I bounced up, safe at home, and ran off the playing field without a word to my friends and cried the whole way home with a brown smelly arm.

My uncle who died real young drove me around Boston in a school bus. I played with a toy car on the floor of the bus, rolling it around as we rolled around.

An unknown man headed to a bell tower hiding a rifle.

See? These events are lost forever unless I call them back into being. I connect them, they meet in me. And twice now, because my father said so, I have read Thomas Pynchon's 'V'.

And I will read it again someday and remember writing here at my desk, remember that my neck hurt when I did, wishing I were someplace else doing something completely different.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Book 49: Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture

I had been destroyed emotionally by fiction before. Many times. It is an honored tradition in my family to ingest and take seriously all sorts of literary pursuits. Often the whole family will be sitting in the living room each reading silently. My girlfriend has occasionally had the gall to say that we aren't communicating at these points.

And while she is right in some ways, in other ways, those moments of shared isolation in a fictional world are as close as my family gets. I vividly remember riding up to a family get-together in either Wellesley or Newton. I was finishing up the Stephen King novella 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Prison' for the first time. At the last word I burst into tears. No one batted an eye. No one needed to ask me if I needed to talk about my own life. They took it on faith that I had been moved by what I'd read. That was what they wanted to know about.

So when I first read Douglas Coupland's masterpiece 'Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture' it went as deep as a rain drop sliding down into the desert sand. Each pore of my body seemed to soak up a bit of it until I was saturated.

I'd read modern authors before but somehow Coupland seemed to be the first person to really articulate what it was like to be me, to have grown up after the upheaval of the late '60's but before the technological advances of the new millenium. The world was in a kind of stasis through the late '80's and early '90's, as if it knew bigger badder bolder things were coming. So the present seemed hazy, unclear, vague. The moments that mattered were usually insignificant in the larger scheme of things, to the point that the highlight of a summer might be a chance encounter in a parking lot that wound up in a bar.

The protagonists drink, sleep with each other or don't, tell stories, recoil from what had been expected of them, and generally disconnect from anything but their disconnection itself. To connect would be impossible given the set of circumstances they found themselves born into.

Even the presentation of the book is modernity expressed. Now the sidebars and cartoons and random statistics placed in the margins of the fictional narrative might not even merit notice but in 1991 it had the written equivalent of Johnny Rotten sneering 'God Save The Queen'. You just didn't do that stuff. But Coupland did.

I know a lot of people who don't take him seriously. I know a lot of people who don't even know who he is. I know that his prose is not dense to any sense of abstraction, that to those who are into the DeLillo's, Roth's, Zadie Smiths and David Foster Wallaces of the world, Coupland is as lightweight as a windbreaker.

I won't do anything to dissuade those folks so I won't even try. All I'll say is that one night I was working in Rhode Island in a restaurant. We finished a long shift and wound up down on the beach that was just down the road. There were perhaps 15 of us and we had looted the cupboards and wine cellar to the point that we had a summer feast on a deserted beach all to ourselves. A bonfire was built. Intense conversation happened alongside frivolous hilarity and waiters/waitresses making out was ignored so that they wouldn't feel ostracized. Pockets issued forth bags of illicit drugs. At a certain point the conversation lulled and everyone simultaneously noticed a falling star. I can only remember the name of one of those people.

And somehow, in spite of our portable compact disc players and the advent of cell phones, we were still cave people huddled around a tiny fire trying to enjoy the simple fact that we were alive.

I think Coupland knew that this kind of experience was disappearing fast. I think he saw that we would be so connected via new means of communication that our isolation would dissipate. I think he wondered how positive that would be in spite of all the easy optimism it might bring. How we might channel ease of connection into numbness without even knowing it.

How he hinted that anything that was accelerating better not find anything blocking the path.